Can an Atheist Believe in God?


By Steven Ramey

My last post generated an extended exchange with a colleague who has rightly pushed me concerning my disavowal of judging identity claims. My colleague suggested, for example, that someone who believes that Jesus is the Son of God does not fit with atheists, a reasonable statement. While many within communities (and scholars) add more stipulations than my colleague’s very basic criteria, his point raised for me another dynamic related to religious identities.

Such definitions assume that one’s chosen religious identification (as opposed to an ascribed identification) correlates with belief and/or practice. This position ignores the social and political motivations for choosing a particular identification and community. For example, consider two hypothetical individuals who hold the same basic beliefs. They acknowledge the existence of a divine power that created the cosmos, but they reject suggestions that this divine power interacts with humans, a position historically labeled as deist. One of these two, having rejected religious practices as unnecessary, identifies as an atheist, thus protesting the prevalence of religious language and practice surrounding her. I can imagine communities of atheists willing to accept her into their community because their social and political interests correlate, even if their beliefs vary. Some Christian communities might similarly accept the second hypothetical person, if he wanted to participate in their community, possibly even labeling his beliefs as acceptable “doubt” within the mystery of Christian theology. Participation in the Christian community for him can provide particularly important social and political benefits that outweigh any qualms he may have with some beliefs and practices that the community promotes.

Rather than suggesting that these individuals or these communities are insincere or corrupted, these hypotheticals illustrate the diverse motivations for claiming an identification and accepting members into a community. Even the most basic definitions overlook these motivations. A self-identified atheist could easily believe that God exists.

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9 Responses to Can an Atheist Believe in God?

  1. Russell McCutcheon says:

    A friend’s blog… Is this what you’re getting at…?

    • Steven Ramey says:

      His experience is a good example of the varied interests that inform participant in communities, and acceptance in communities. Since he avoids labeling himself as atheist or as Christian, his post reinforces the point that the assumptions scholars and society more generally make based on those labels (acceptance of particular doctrinal positions, for example) are often problematic.

  2. michel bordeau says:

    I consider myself a scryptotheism, an atheist who sees no point in denying that gods are book characters of Axial Age narratives we commonly refer to as scriptures, but as far as these book characters having the ability to influence my life, my cognitive capacity, or shape our planet and our laws both natural and judicial, I say, it’s statistically improbable, and most importantly, rather unecessary.

  3. Deane says:

    Interesting stuff. The modern classifications atheist and theist do largely rest on ideas of God, gods, etc rather than pragmatic grounds. Or ethical grounds – as was once foregrounded in the use of ‘atheist’.

    I know a UK-resident Kiwi who thinks there is no divine being but who refuses the term ‘atheist’ because of its recent aggressive new-atheist meaning. And I know a kiwi married to a Texan who freely says he is an ‘atheist’ in new zealand where it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, but wouldn’t dare mention it in texas.

    • Steven Ramey says:

      Absolutely the point. People employ identity claims of all sorts for various social and political reasons, as your examples demonstrate. Assuming that the label someone claims necessarily equates with particular beliefs or practices seems unwarranted.

  4. Bernie Zaleha says:

    I concur with those who would say that a deist is not an atheist. Deism still posits a supreme force or being outside the created order, and is necessarily contrary to atheism. However, there is another approach.

    “The OED defines pantheism as ‘The religious belief or philosophical theory that God and the universe are identical (implying a denial of the personality and transcendence of God); the doctrine that God is everything and everything is God.'”

    “Random House[‘s dictionary] includes a . . . definition [of atheism as follows]: ‘disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.’ And Webster’s defines it this way: ‘The disbelief or denial of the existence of a God, or supreme intelligent Being,’ and provides two examples of usage. Thus, Random House and Webster’s provide a definition of atheism that allows atheism to be limited to a denial of the existence of a supreme being or beings. Thus, an understanding of God that did not include belief in a supreme being or beings would not be inconsistent with or excluded by this second definition of atheism. This second definition would not therefore necessarily include a denial of God understood pantheistically.”

  5. Randi Warne says:

    Is Michael Bourdeau saying that “these book characters” do NOT affect laws, his life, his cognitive capacity and such? A quick read of women and the law would seem to confirm these “book characters” have power over shaping the values of a social order.

    On another note, is there anyone out there participating in these discussions who was not raised in an overtly religious environment?

  6. Pingback: July 2012 Biblical Studies Carnival « Reading Acts

  7. Carl says:

    If the point you’re attempting to make is that the “a-” applies to “theist”—so that a deist would also constitute a “not theist”—then I think it holds. of course, you’ve got an uphill battle the rest of your life since you’ll forever be qualifying your use of “atheist” as “not being a theist” rather than the more accepted notion of “not believe in a god/gods.” If, however, “atheist” does means “a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods”—then, by definition, an atheist cannot believe in God.

    As for self-identification, let’s not make the mistake of assuming that, because one self-identifiies as something, that identification is accurate.

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